I’ve just released chapter 4 of my serial novel, The Child in the Garden. It is a magical realism mystery set in the American South in the late 1950s. This process has already been so wonderful, motivating me to write often, edit more thoroughly, and keep tension and pace more in my mind as I write.
“Now this is how you grow a garden, Caroline.”
Grandmother wore her pink linen dress and her thick white canvas apron. She had left off her usual stockings and pearls. She put her hands on her hips. “Just leave it there Mr. Hawkins!” she yelled, pointing to the corner of the garden. We watched as the neighbor backed his truck into the yard, the mulch piled as high as a mountain. After parking he climbed up into the bed and began shoveling it off. My grandmother hoisted me up into the truck bed and then stepped up herself. I used the little shovel she’d bought me the week prior at the general store. “I’ve never been afraid of hard work!” she said. She wiped some sweat from her forehead and smiled.
It took us a week to mulch the beds, my grandmother pulling weeds as we went. She used an old kitchen knife, donning gardening gloves covered in a purple iris print. She stabbed the blade into the earth and twisted it round hard. Kneeling next to her I could hear the snap of roots before she tore the dandelions and henbit and crabgrass from the soil. Then she would use her cupped palms to pat the mulch around sprigs of onion or the beginnings of the lettuce and spinach and chard just beginning to sprout from the earth.
“It just gets easier every year, Caroline, love. Thirty years we’ve grown this garden. Your mother used to do this work, just like you.” I followed her around the yard and worked alongside her as she harvested tomatoes or examined the peaches and plums in the orchard. She was always chatting away, teaching me things — where to look for caterpillars or how to keep beetles off leaves. It was hard work, half of which she hired out to neighborhood boys in subsequent years. Looking back, though, I think this was Grandmother’s way of keeping me close that first summer, of knitting me to her when my grief was still so new.
In the afternoons we were too tired for much. We would bring a blanket out under the maple tree in the side yard, and read our books and drink lemonade, and in the evenings Grandmother would let me stay out late enough to catch fireflies in jars. She made me dozens of new dresses for school, and knew ten ways at least to braid my hair, which she took great care to do every morning.
For all this, of course, I missed my mother. I dreamed of her often, and in these dreams she was usually sitting on my bed, just as she did when she was alive, reading a book or mending clothes. Seeing her there, I would give a little sob and crawl into her lap, and tell her, “Oh, Mama, I thought you were dead,” and she would stroke my hair and say with half a smile, “My poor little Caroline, right here I am!” And when I woke up I would already be crying, and my grandmother would lay down with me until I fell back asleep.
One morning after just such a dream, Grandmother showed me a little patch of land in the corner of the front yard I’d never taken much notice of before. It was bordered in small rocks but the grass grew up among them and the only thing of note was a little trellis bench in the corner that had once been painted white but that was now faded back to wood. “This was your mother’s garden when she was a girl,” she said. “I’ve neglected it ever since she’s been gone, but if you’d like to take it over, I’ve a little rose bush for you to tend.” We planted it, kneeling together on the ground to tuck the mulch in around it. Then Grandmother said, as she stood, “You know, it seems to me there’s still something of your Mama’s spirit here, Caroline love. Like I can almost feel her. Can you feel her?”
I closed my eyes. I tried to picture her standing in the garden, smiling at me. She would have freckles on her cheeks, it being summer. Her hair would be curly in the humidity and heat. “I can feel her,” I whispered, and Grandmother squeezed my shoulder, gentle-like.
From then on whenever I was sad, I went to my mother’s garden and sat on the bench and imagined I was talking to her. Eventually, this became something of a prayer, and I would go to the rose bush to cry and speak any little sorrow I had. As the years passed, the rose bush grew and grew, and Grandmother paid a neighbor boy to build an arbor for it to trail up, and I would sit there underneath the shade of the roses.
When I was seventeen and it was one year since my son’s birth, I sat in my mother’s garden and cried harder than I had ever done before. I prayed to melt into the earth and dissolve I felt so sad. It was just turning from autumn to winter, and the rose bush was bare, but in an instant, as sweet as a kiss a little rose bud grew and unfurled where one of my tears had fallen, and then another sprang, and another, and soon the little garden was covered in blossoms and I knew deeper than any other knowing that the blooms were a sign sent for me.
Since then, the flowers had come steady each spring, growing more and more plentifully, and I understood them as proof of his joy. The blooms lasted later than all the other spring flowers, holding out even until the last whispers of summer faded into autumn. I would watch them and be peaceful, certain that he was alive and well, certain as they faded each winter that they would return.
But on a crisp, cool morning in the spring of my 23rd year, the boy’s flowers began to wilt.